A different process, place and language

Typing up the many notebooks I managed to fill during our residency in China has reminded me that Samantha and I weren’t able to blog about our process while we were there due to the Great Firewall, so here’s a look back at November/December. It was an odd experience for me, working towards a non-fiction piece. I wrote so much some days that my hand began cramping, but it felt as though I wasn’t writing at all.

My first notebook, our first night at the residency
My first notebook, our first night at the residency

I came back to the UK unsure of how much work I’d actually managed to get done while I was out there. The basic facts – five A5 notebooks crammed with handwriting, plus a sheaf of production notes from Samantha and my conversations about how we’d tackle turning the residency into an artwork – clearly suggested that’s we’d covered a lot of ground. So why did I feel so uncertain about it?

Enjoying the view across Old Lijiang City from a rooftop cafe
Enjoying the view across Old Lijiang City from a rooftop cafe

Unpicking it through a series of conversations with writing friends, I realised that while i’d written – intensively, obsessively – for hours every day, I’d done practically none of what I normally think of as writing, which is to say writing from imagination, creative fiction writing. I’m used to drawing threads out of real-life situations and spinning them into something else, not to working intensively with the raw material and trying to leave it raw and true at the end of the process. I’d been annotating conversations, transcribing interviews as they were being conducted.

Interviewing a fellow writer
Interviewing a fellow writer

My process in China was one of capturing raw materials, not shaping them. And somewhere in my head that doesn’t count towards ‘real writing’, perhaps because I was interacting with those raw materials in what was for me such a strange fashion. I tried to capture tricks of speech (not the easiest task in the world when working through a translator), note my impressions of our surroundings, the cultural context of what was being discussed. I can only pinpoint two occasions when I actually wrote creatively.

Our interviewees pressed fruit upon us when we visited. Much of my writing was done whilst eating a massive apple.
Our interviewees pressed fruit upon us when we visited. Much of my writing was done whilst eating a massive apple.

 

The first was in re-working the skeleton of a Naxi ghost story about whistling after dark that a Dongba shaman told us round the hearth when we stayed up on the mountainside, when the Baijo (local firewater) had already turned my handwriting almost indecipherable. I turned a two minute anecdote into a worked-through short story that an ex-facilitator of the studio who happened to be passing through then translated into Mandarin for me, and our host Grandpa Hé kindly allowed me to make an audio recording of him reading so that I could produce an audio installation for our group show in a (hastily converted) camel shed*. The concept changed massively during both the writing and editing stages, and I allowed my gruesome imagination full reign.

Telling tall tales, eating walnuts,  drinking Baijo
Telling tall tales, eating walnuts, drinking Baijo

The second was at a pig-killing on a local farm. After the main event was over our translator, Ffrog, and Samantha went back to the studio leaving myself and an American visual artist from the residency watching the rest of the gutting and clean-up process. Neither of us spoke Mandarin or Naxi so he sketched and I wrote descriptively about the scenes unfolding in front of me. Having enough space and time to consider my choice of language in writing about the world around me rather than scrabbling to note something before the conversation moved on faster than my pen led to a completely different style of writing. It was one of the most restful points of the three-week residency. I also used an edited version of that section of writing in our camel-shed show.

The one photo I took at the pig killing, before my camera battery died.
The one photo I took at the pig killing, before my camera battery died.

It has only been the past few weeks- as I type up my notebooks and begin to separate the work into the twelve themes/divisions Samantha and I provisionally agreed on for the digital book – that I realise how rich and evocative the writing in the notebooks actually is. When actually there – in this strange, beautiful landscape, in the middle of an utterly different code of social reasoning, in the kind of agricultural lifestyle I think is lost to the UK – the words felt inadequate, frustrating and scrappy. Now I can see that – read from the context of my ‘normal’ life – they distill parts of my experience well. Some things can’t be conveyed, they have to be experienced. But even though it’s taken me three months to gain the right perspective, I can final value the work I was doing as an integral element of what will hopefully convey something interesting to other people.

My notebook next to breakfast bowls of Baijo, the Dongba shaman's pipe, and Frog's wire artworks-in-progress, up on the mountains.
My notebook next to breakfast bowls of Baijo, the Dongba shaman’s pipe, and Frog’s wire artworks-in-progress, up on the mountains.

*No, camels are not native to the area. But that’s another story.